This morning I’m listening to a lecture from Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary, who recently gave the Lafontaine-Baldwin lecture on “Doing the Right Thing.” Nenshi shares his thoughts and stories on citizenship and on how that is changing in Canada. And he doesn’t pull punches.
The lecture is divided into two parts. The second part talks about citizen action, but the first part talks about our history of racism.
There is a deep thread of racism that runs through Canadian society. As a white skinned man, I grew up hearing racist chatter. “Privilege” in Canada – being an “Old Stock Canadian” to use Stephen Harper’s egregious phrase, accords you a special window on people’s real views about things. It’s as if you can be confided in to keep the dirty little secret that racism is rampant in this country. And I’m not merely talking about the obvious and official outbreaks of racism like the Komagata Maru or Japanese internment or the Chinese Exclusion Act or None is Too Many or Africville or residential schools or carding or any other of the historical and official policies of racism. No, I am talking about the mindset that simmers beneath it all, the permission given to an attitude of micro-aggression and othering that is constantly stoked by “wink wink nudge nudge” conversations between light skinned people when they think no one else is around. I am talking about a widespread practice of refusing to be reflective on one’s own racism and privilege, leading to misplaced outbursts of outrage that have the odd effect of white people claiming victimhood while at the same time disparaging others for their adoption of an “entitled victim mentality.”
The way Canadian society works is that this simmer mindset among the privileged stays out of sight and below the radar. Anyone who dares to state it out loud and publicly is usually disowned right away as a crazy crackpot. If much of what is said on newspaper comments sections comes out of the mouth of an ordinary citizen in a public setting, you’re supposed to call them out even as you nod along and your inner voice says “damn rights!” The mindset is always there, but you’re supposed to refer to it in code: “those people,” “offshore owners,” “I’m not racist, but…” “one law for all,” “honest, hardworking Canadians,” “Old Stock…”
But what is happening now – and this is something that Naheed Nenshi points out in the first part of his lecture – is that kind of talk is becoming normalized. Over the past ten years, what is supposed to be a secret set of conversations between privileged people is becoming shamelessly public. We are seeing candidates running in this election that have no qualms stating outright racist stuff. We are seeing public debates in which refugees as a class are slandered as potential Islamist terrorists, the 21st century version of the yellow peril scare. Call them racist and they declare you out of order for making an ad hominem attack. In the most openly racist era of my life, one is left wondering when and where we get to have this conversation about how racism informs public policy. Anyone? During the election? Calling another candidate racist is now a gift to the racist candidate. They can rally their base supporters behind the slanderous accusation that they are racist.
And while I’m all in favour of having racism out in the open where we can deal with it, it’s also clear to me that this normalization has the effect of legitimizing racism as an acceptable rationale for policy making. People seriously use terms like “cultural suicide” to discuss the effect of admitting Muslim refugees to Canada and no one seems to blink an eye. We have seen our federal government openly use racism to drive a wedge between citizens in Canada and raise the suspicions between Canadians. We have witnessed the government create two classes of citizens with two different standards of justice for Canadians who were born here or whose grandparents were born here – “the Old Stock” – and others (like my wife, or my children), who can be deported to another country and stripped of their citizenship for committing certain crimes. We have seen the passage of a Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act which outlaws things that are already outlawed, but has the effect of also making “barbaric” an official standard by which we can cast suspicion on people. Have any of you reading this pictured in your mind a white man beating his children and justifying it by saying “a man’s home is his castle and no one can tell me how to parent?” Because that is a pretty barbaric cultural practice, but I will bet not a single white man will be brought to court under this act for that offense.
Racism has become normalized. We are making actual laws again in this country on that basis. Our history tells us that what comes next will be inhumane and unjust and that we will eventually look back on it with regret and dismay. Future generations will ask us how this could be allowed to happen. And no one will say “I let it happen.” We will all declare powerlessness in the face of politicians or elites or whomever we can separate ourselves from. Especially those of us granted the privilege of being “Old Stock” Canadians. If history is any teacher, something powerful and tragic will happen, a denouement will occur, and the conversation will go back underground to simmer along as it always has. Disrupting this cycle is important. It is the critical work of citizenship.